On Gender and Society

The other day in the newspaper there was a sequence of in-depth articles on gender issues in today’s society.  As one of the purposes of this blog is to comment on pertinent social issues of our day – I thought I’d explore the topic of gender for today’s entry.  Recently, I wrote an article on the Art of Visualization that discussed the process of imagining a thought or concept.  Today we’ll reverse gears and look at society’s perception of gender, and see if what society thinks it sees, is really what’s there.

Perception is a difficult subject due to the fact that everyone enters the argument with preconceived ideas about how things should be, how they should look, how they should be taught or not taught it school – in a word – bias.  We are all biased to a point, and some of us much more than others.  We are products of both our biology and our individual and shared experience.  Part of our experience is what is taught to us by our parents or the schools, and our individual experience and observation provides the rest of our knowledge base.  In matters where we don’t have very much individual experience we end up relying on what we can learn on our own or what others tell us.  One of the areas where many people are strongly opinionated, for many different reasons, is the area of sexuality and gender – because it can make many of us uncomfortable discussing it in a public forum and we don’t want to take issue with what society at large has deemed to be within the “normal” parameters of conversation, behavior and even belief.  I don’t mind getting my boots a little muddy here, so let’s just jump right into the topic at hand.

For an introductory understanding of the issue I’ll go to my old standby, Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, for a few definitions:

“Gender comprises a range of differences between men and women, extending from the biological to the social.  Biologically, the male gender is defined by the presence of a Y-chromosome, and its absence in the female gender.  However, there is debate as to the extent that the biological difference has or necessitates differences in gender roles in society and on gender identity, which has been defined as “an individual’s self-conception as being male or female, as distinguished from actual biological sex.”  Historically, feminism has posited that many gender roles are socially constructed, and lack a clear biological explanation, but find their explanation in unequal (male/female) economic power and other power relations.

Although gender is popularly used interchangeably with sex (male or female biology), or more recently with “sexual orientation” and “identity” (including LGBT), historically, within the social sciences, including political economy, it refers to specifically social differences. People whose gender identity feels incongruent with their biological sex may refer to themselves transgender or transsexual.

Many languages have a system of grammatical gender, a type of noun class system — nouns may be classified as masculine or feminine (for example Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic and French) and may also have a neuter grammatical gender (for example Sanskrit, German, Polish, and the Scandinavian languages). In such languages, this is essentially a convention, which may have little or no connection to the meaning of the words. Likewise, a wide variety of phenomena have characteristics termed gender, by analogy with male and female bodies (such as the gender of connectors and fasteners) or due to societal norms.”

What is interesting to note in this discussion from Wikipedia, is that society has historically provided or mandated gender roles for its members in considering what roles and actions are deemed to be normal and what roles and actions are considered to be abnormal.  These parameters have been in place for centuries, and have rarely been questioned or challenged by the population at large until modern times.  Different societies and different cultures have viewed the same gender issues in completely different ways over the centuries, which occur more often than not, for reasons of custom, tradition and religion.

An example of a societal barrier, is the fact that until relatively recently, women were not able to vote in America and other western countries.  Our patriarchal society at the time wouldn’t allow women to vote, because that wasn’t considered their place or role in society.  It was for the men to both control and decided the issues of the day, and a woman’s place was considered to be in the home – not in the voting booth.  Later, after society didn’t crumble from having given women the right to vote, the next barrier to crumble was the right for women to work outside of the home in jobs that weren’t considered at the time women’s work.  Women had found that their only opportunities for employment outside the home were in areas such as secretarial, cleaning and nursing professions, to name a few.  Their options for other types of jobs were limited, and society refused to allow women to choose for themselves what areas of employment they were interested in pursuing.  In essence, women were denied the right for self determination in the area of employment, by a society that believed itself to be free and democratic.  In a struggle that would precede the civil rights movement, women were fighting a battle for equality in society – which they were denied due to their gender alone.  It was World War II, creating the immediate necessity for an expanded pool of workers that changed women’s opportunities for employment, due to the fact that most young men were actively engaged in the war effort.  All of a sudden it was commonplace for women to work in factories, providing the backbone of the war effort at home – as in the famous image of Rosie the Riveter.  Of interesting note is that as late as 1979, the Equal Rights Amendment failed to gain enough support in America to guarantee equal rights to women through an amendment to the Constitution. 

Following the Second World War, women have personally fought for and gained both the right and opportunity to become lawyers, doctors, police officers, firefighters, soldiers and politicians.  At first the public outcry was loud and clamorous as one traditional barrier after another fell to provide opportunities for women in every profession in America.  Years later, we now have professional women at the highest levels of all professions, doing the work as well as or often better than, their male counterparts – from fighter pilots to surgeons, politicians to police officers.  These barriers have fallen because even the most diehard traditionalists – largely men who felt somehow that their masculinity was threatened by smart, educated and powerful women – have realized that the barriers that society has erected over time were artificially erected and represented historical, perceived or biased views as opposed to judging women – or anyone – based solely on their ability.  These biased opinions were indefensible in a free and open democratic society – where all men and women period – are created equal.

Today the fight for social and gender rights continues, with a newer generation and bigger expectations for women as we all go into the future together – because bias and prejudice is still with us in the year 2009.  Today we are seeing an even greater percentage of women attending college than ever before, as many men have found themselves to be academically challenged and unable to compete – in an ever growing technical society and on a level playing field.  Women may very soon outnumber men in colleges and universities across America.  The requirements for manual labor in our society have declined as the role of working women has increased and technology has progressed, to the point where women may soon comprise a larger percentage of the workforce as well in the very near future then men – completely reversing the gender roles and stereotypes of only a century or less ago.  As this trend of equality continues in society, will we ever achieve a completely gender neutral society, where the ambitions of the individual, not the expectations and limitations of society, provide everyone with the opportunity to chart their own destiny and self-fulfillment – regardless of their biological gender identity based soley on their chromosomes – instead of on their ability, interests, feelings, perception or desires?

In order to look at the future of true gender equality, we need to look at society’s perceptions and ask what other barriers that society has erected over time may be the next to come down.  A perfectly logical expectation for society, as we go forward into the future together, is to create a society where no artificial barriers exist that prevent an individual from full participation in society, and where individuals are totally free to define for themselves where they want to participate in all aspects of the gender continuum – whether in private, public settings or in the workplace.  But what do we really know about gender in the most unbiased sense?

First of all, we know that religion plays a major role in forming traditional perceptions that society holds concerning gender and gender roles that define for many what is appropriate and what is not as far as gender is concerned.  As a Christian, I look at this area objectively, and attempt to look past my own individual biases at the subject.  America has a Constitution that forbids imposing a state religion onto our citizens, and at the same time provides the right for all citizens to freely practice the religion of our choice.  A single religion shouldn’t be allowed to dictate their views on anyone.  Christians should rather look to live their lives as examples for others to choose to model, and to give to, “Caesar what is Caesar’s” in respect to society.  Christians participate and vote as members of a democracy, and if they make their case as a model for emulating then others will choose to follow their example as well.  But no segment of society can dictate their belief to others – not Christians, not Muslims, nor Atheists.  To give one religion the power to choose for everyone means that one day another could easily dictate their values on you.  As a result, a completely gender neutral society, free of imposed religious values, allows for the freedom of all individuals to live their lives freely and without constraints.  It is interesting to note from a Christian perspective, that although society has often held historical views of gender and gender roles based on perceived religious values; Jesus actually focused on neither gender or sexual roles or orientation specfically, but instead focused on the immorality of the heart – on our thoughts, actions and those things that are held within us, that pollute the soul and cause our sinfulness – and also focused in many respects on the redemptive aspects of loving one another and forgiving one another as a universal balm of healing for everyone and for our reconciliation through Him to God the Father in Heaven.

If we remove the role and influence of religion from our view of gender and gender roles in society, then what about the various historical views concerning gender that have been adopted by society over time?  Is it worth turning everything society has previously known upside down in order to create a basis of equality for what essentially may be a very small minority of the total population?  To give everyone in society the same freedom to choose their own direction and potential, should be a universal truth to be held very dear and protected by all who cherish democracy.  It may be the desire of a minority of citizens to seek equality for themselves today, but tomorrow it may be you who are in a minority that is seeking equality for yourself and others.

What does science tell us about gender that we didn’t historically know before as a society?  We know that every embryo initially begins to form as a female, and in the case of males, the embryo further develops into the male form, from the original female form.  From a completely objective point of view then, every male is a transitioned or transgendered individual because they originated in the embryonic female form before evolving further to become male.  Science also tells us that the brain plays a large role in how we perceive ourselves, in terms of gender.  Our time in the womb during fetal development plays a very large role in terms of both our biological gender development as well as in our later gender awareness and perception.  We experienced a measurable effect on our development depending on the amount of either estrogen or testosterone we were exposed to from our mothers while in the womb.  Additionally, there are some people that genetically lie between genders or outside of the defined biological definitions of gender due to chromosomal abnormalities from what is considered to be normal human development.  The fact that someone’s chromosomes or physical attributes or gender awareness or gender identity makes them different from anyone else doesn’t make them wrong, it makes them unique and an individual.  A free society should promote individualism and self determination as its very foundation, and not erect barriers to anyone or prevent them from full participation in society.  We are all unique and special in the eyes of God.

Over the years the fields of Psychology and Psychiatry have studied many common psychological traits that are held by people.  Famous psychiatrists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung have postulated theories as to the inner workings of the human psyche, and it is commonly understood that much of our awareness of self and identity is formed early on in our lives – even as a young child.  Certain individual events that occur early on during in our childhood can affect us psychologically.  Self awareness, identity and gender perception all originate in the brain, and our fetal development and social experience can mould our earliest perceptions of ourselves as a child – into our own personal reality that we can carry with us for our entire lives.  What we think and feel as a child can have a long lasting impression on us.

Another area of gender awareness is the nature of physical attraction.  What is it that attracts us to one another?  Individual preferences and biology both play large roles in both gender awareness as well as the nature of attraction between people.  An article in today’s paper described the differences between men and women and how their brains perceive beauty.  Men use only the right half of their brain and define beauty in terms of spatial concepts and relationships.  Women use their entire brain to perceive beauty and tie their perception of beauty to language.  So what if an individual man tied his concept of beauty to language specifically, and an individual woman used the right side of her brain to give a spatial relationship to beauty – would either one be wrong?  According to what standards?

To illustrate the differences between us concerning attraction, imagine that a thousand volunteers participate in an experiment where they are all photographed, and their photos are placed in a common file.  Each individual is then asked separately to view the other 999 photographs and create a list of photos to which they are attracted to.  My guess is that of 1000 files of individual preferences from the same sample file, that no two folders of individual preferences would contain the same selections.  Some folders may contain literally hundreds of attractions, where another folder may be empty or have only a few.  What determines the differences in attraction between people?  Again, a combination of biology in how our brains sense attraction and social convention come into play.  In our experiment, some people will be attracted to members of the perceived opposite gender (heterosexual orientation), some people will be attracted to members of their same perceived gender (homosexual), some people will be attracted to both genders (bisexual) and still others will be attracted to no one at all (asexual).  Why do we all differ in how we are attracted to others?   What makes one choice right and another wrong, besides society’s perceived morality concerning the choice?  In a free society how does someone else’s choice affect us?  Should it affect us?  Should we care?  Or do we espouse equality and freedom of action and lifestyle?  If we are to call ourselves free – we should be allowed to be free – and free from other people’s biases or prejudices as well.

Should society throw out the definitions of words that have been longstanding and understood for centuries through continuous use?  I think that hijacking language is something that society shouldn’t tolerate.  Words should evolve, and new ones introduced as required to communicate, but misusing or taking a word to deprive society of its meaning is wrong.  The word gay used to have a harmless sense of innocence to it, until it was hijacked to refer to a specific lifestyle instead.  The definition of marriage has historically been between a man and a woman, and both the intent and meaning should remain in the common language as such.  If society decides to allow other official forms of endearment to become sanctioned or official, it has civil union and other terms to define what to call it – but don’t take a word and hijack its meaning or intent.  To call a dog’s tail a leg is a nonsensical use of language.  Everyone knows it is still a tail and no one takes seriously the notion that it has become a leg just because someone chooses to call it one.

A major way we perceive gender in others is through the effects of the two major hormones that we all make within us – estrogen and testosterone.  Women are externally perceived as such largely due to the effects of estrogen.  Men are perceived in many ways based on the effects of testosterone.  What is interesting to note is that as all of us age, our hormones are in transition over time.  Women’s estrogen levels fall naturally throughout their lives as they age.  Men have a similar and opposite path during life as their testosterone levels naturally decline with age.  From the peak of our hormonal vitality as teenagers and young adults, we are undergoing a slow and gradual transition throughout our lives as we journey into old age.  Where once in our youth we were at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of gender, male or female, once we reach the realm of old age we are strikingly more visably alike than we are different, as our dominant hormone levels decrease and our bodies reflect those changes.  Old men and old women who have journeyed together through life over the years, grow to be very much alike in thought, action, and appearance as they literally gravitate to the middle of the hormonal spectrum to live together somewhere in the middle ground.

While we all transition from the gender vitality of our youth into the middle ground of old age during the natural course of our lives, others that are at a specific hormonal point in their lives are unhappy with where their natural hormonal balance between estrogen and testosterone lies, and choose to modify it to where they are happier.  Some people modify their hormone levels in order to retain the vigor of their youth, or to stem the advancing changes that come naturally with aging.  Others are unhappy with their gender or the natural hormone balance that nature has given them, and choose to modify their hormone levels to feel better about themselves – and are described as transgender or some other description that better suits how they actually view themselves to be.  Should society care?  Should society dictate how they should feel, or deny them the right to feel comfortable about themselves in any setting – public or private?  I don’t think that a free and open society has a reason to decide for someone how they are to feel, live or choose to be happy.  Freedom of choice and from someone else’s choice is the moral right of every citizen in a free and open democratic society.

Society often forms perceptions based on appearance and appearances.  Society as a whole does judge actions – even when it has no moral justification to do so.  If the ultra feminine woman chooses to wear flannel shirts, blue jeans, construction boots, a hard hat and a tool belt – of what concern is it to us if she wants to spend her working life using a nail gun and building houses?  If a masculine man chooses to design the interiors of homes and wash them in color and fine furnishings, of what concern is to anyone else?  How people present themselves, and the types of professions, hobbies or lifestyles they choose to live, are outward expressions of gender and demonstrate to the world around them what makes them happy – both on the inside and the outside.  Does society have the right to impose restrictions on people in terms of gender expression and interpretation?  Does society have the right to impose anything on the individual except the expectation of an orderly civil community and a law abiding restraint in our actions?  Should society tell us anything about how to live or restrict us from our own individuality – in any area of our life?  I think not – at least not in a society of gender neutrality, freedom and equality.    

I wrote a previous article titled Define Your Own Success which made the case to not let anyone else define who you are as a person or what determines your success in life.  Through your own personal views concerning gender roles or gender identity, you may perceive yourself in one way; your life experience may reinforce or counter that belief; you may be taught a reinforcing or conflicting view of gender and gender roles; and society may establish artificial boundaries concerning gender that either fence you in or fence you out depending your own personal views.  In addition, religion may reinforce or undermine how you feel about yourself.  So in a free and open society we should all be able to be determine our own direction in life and to determine what self-fulfillment means to us on an individual basis.  Do you tell someone’s daughter she can’t be an astronaut or physicist if she wants to?  Of course not.  Is it right to tell someone’s son not to dance with the ballet if he wants to?  Again – no.  To be free to be ourselves is to uphold all that is democratic and morally right in placing the rights of the individual ahead of any artificially erected barriers set up by society to keep certain types of people from their full participation in that society.  A gender neutral future – is it possible?  Of course it is possible.  Not only is it possible but it is morally and ethically right to allow people the freedom to achieve their greatest possible potential – as they define it to be – for themselves.

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